Galveston County leaders are asking federal emergency officials for a housing program that allows contractors to make damaged houses livable in a shorter amount of time.
County Judge Mark Henry is working with state representatives to push for the program, called Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power, or STEP. The program, which was implemented in New York after Superstorm Sandy, gives contractors a set amount of money to do basic repairs, such as plumbing and electricity, at homes in ravaged areas.
Those fixes are meant to be enough to get people living back at home while they await for assistance from sources such as the federal Community Development Block Grant program, state Rep. Greg Bonnen said.
“The STEP program, I think, is potentially a great option to get people back in their homes in an efficient and timely manner,” Bonnen said. “Instead of being in a hotel or a trailer or some sort of temporary or transitory-type housing, they could be in their own home.”
Henry estimated that about 40,000 people could have been displaced by Hurricane Harvey, which crept over Southeast Texas, and in some places, dropped more than 50 inches of rain in a four-day period. The resulting flooding devastated areas such as Dickinson, Friendswood and League City, destroying cars and making thousands of homes unlivable.
The STEP program would be voluntary for homeowners, Bonnen said. The state of Louisiana offered the program after flooding in August 2016. In that program, contractors received no more than $15,000 for each home repaired, according to the program’s website, Shelter at Home.
“We’re very interested,” Henry said. “It’s a perfect fit. We didn’t have people who had their homes swept away.”
The program would be a better alternative to FEMA mobile trailers, such as the ones used after Hurricane Katrina, Henry said. Those trailers were lambasted at the time for causing illness because of a presence of formaldehyde.
“It’s a direct replacement for temporary housing units, which we’d like to avoid,” Henry said.
Steve Mataro, an owner of DSW Homes, did disaster recovery work in New York and Louisiana through the STEP program. The program is well-suited for the kind of damage Harvey did, he said.
“I can’t think of any program out there that is better suited for the recovery than this program,” Mataro said. “There isn’t another program out there that can do what this program does and bring people home at a faster rate.”
Bonnen said he has been working to make the program available through a joint effort with the state of Texas and FEMA. Henry and Bonnen on Sunday didn’t have an estimate about whether or when the program would be implemented.
“That’s kind of the frustration on our part,” Henry said. “We’re trying to get things done today or tomorrow. We’re working on it as fast and furious as we can.”
Time is of the essence for those who are affected by the storm, Bonnen said.
Displaced people can pay for temporary housing in hotels and short-term rentals with FEMA vouchers. But rooms are filling up, several hotel managers and workers said.
Dickinson Motel, 2514 Hill Ave., on Sunday afternoon opened up to people needing temporary housing assistance. The available rooms were almost full hours later, said Monica Ramoutar, a manager at the motel.
“Calls have been coming in,” Ramoutar said. “We’re small, so we don’t have much room.”
At the Economy Lodge, 1902 Texas Ave. in Texas City, rooms were filling up fast Sunday, housekeeper Vilas Patel said.
“I have, right now, a couple rooms left to rent,” Patel said.
Even in Galveston, at the Best Western West Beach Hotel, 8710 Seawall Blvd., people who were displaced were filling up rooms quickly, said Kimberly Martin, a guest services representative at the hotel.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re almost there,” Martin said. “I’m getting a lot of Dickinson people and a lot of La Marque, Texas City.”
Evette Torres, general manager of Webster Springhill Suites, 1101 Magnolia Ave. in Webster, said her hotel was taking in people as rooms become available. Some rooms at the hotel were unavailable because of storm damage, she said.
“We’re actually really sold out,” Torres said. “Some days, we are overcommitted on rooms.”
About 40 percent of the hotel rooms are booked by people with FEMA housing assistance vouchers, Torres said.
“It’s unfortunate because I don’t have all of my rooms,” Torres said. “We’ve been trying hard not to turn anyone away.”
RayLeen Caraballo, of Beaumont, found housing at a Galveston hotel after giving birth Aug. 25 at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Her home wasn’t damaged, but she still isn’t able to return to Beaumont, Caraballo said.
Crystal Williams, a social worker at the medical branch, helped Caraballo and several other new mothers from the area find housing in Galveston hotels. Getting housing assistance in Galveston wasn’t too difficult, Williams said.
“It was fairly easy, surprisingly,” Williams said. “Everything fell into place.”
Some county residents have found temporary assistance through FEMA, and others have not been as lucky.
Paul Ruiz, a Dickinson resident displaced by the storm, on Sunday was still at the shelter at Hometown Heroes Park because he can’t find a hotel close enough to home. Ruiz doesn’t have a car and will be going back and forth between a hotel and his house, he said.
He’s the primary caretaker for his 88-year-old mother and can’t leave her alone for extended periods, Ruiz said.
“At the moment, we’re in limbo,” Ruiz said. “What we need is a FEMA trailer.”
Whitney Nolder rents a home in Dickinson, but she, her husband and three children were displaced by the floods.
The family is at a short-term rental through Sept. 10, but Nolder doesn’t know where they will go after that, she said.
“We’ve been bouncing around for the past week, so being able to find a place to stay for 10 days is a blessing,” Nolder said. “We’re at a loss of what to do now, where to go.
“I don’t know what we’ll do when the 10th comes around, but right now we’re stable.”